Before Peter Bogdanovich made movies, he loved movies. That doesn’t seem all that unique, but it was still a relatively new trajectory into the artform in the late nineteen-sixties, when the grand old men of Hollywood’s Golden Age (and it was almost entirely men because talented women filmmakers got shunted to the side) were still grinding out their last few features. Those aging predecessors had established narrative cinema techniques as their job, seemingly with little other motivation than it was a preferable way to earn a living than a factory trudge. For Bogdanovich and several fellow up-and-comers in his rough peer group, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg among them, movies were a passion, a point of obsession. Standing behind and camera and yelling “Action!” and “Cut!” was a lifelong dream.
The French New Waves auteurs were there first. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others wrote with urgency about the art of film in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma in the nineteen-fifties, before launching their own directorial careers. Bogdanovich followed a similar model, authoring monographs, programming retrospectives for the Museum of Modern Art, and conducting deep-dive interviews with American masters such as John Ford and Orson Welles. Where he diverged from the film upstarts of the République française was in the overt demonstration of the grammar of visual storytelling, the compulsion to make highly visible the choices of shot framing, lighting, and editing that foundational directors worked so diligently to make invisible.
“My insight is to reject all those modern techniques,” Bogdanovich told an interviewer around the time his second feature film, The Last Picture Show, was released, in 1971. “In too many movies, the camera is the star. My films are not about cameras, they’re about people.”
Bogdanovich was being a little disingenuous in that statement. The Last Picture Show is filled with incredibly elegant shots that call attention to the director’s keen eye, and even the decision to shoot the picture in black and white conveyed authorial rebellion. It is true that the main takeaway from The Last Picture Show is the richness of the characters. Bogdanovich worked with writer Larry McMurty to adapt McMurtry’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel about a dying Texas town and its numbed residents grasping for whatever stray bits of prospective happiness they can find. Its story spread generously among many character, the film is a gift for actors. That was reflected in the attention bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Among the film’s eight Oscar nominations were four for performances, two each in the supporting categories. To date, it’s the last time both supporting categories included competing co-stars.
Surprisingly, given the consensus view that multiple acting nominees from the same film are prone to splitting the vote, both supporting categories were decided in favor of The Last Picture Show cast members. Ben Johnson, who played the town local legend Sam the Lion, was a a member of John Ford’s stock company who turned down Bogdanovich’s original offer of the role because he didn’t like the randier aspects of the script. Johnson signed on only as a favor to Ford, who was inclined to support the younger filmmaker. (That Bogdanovich’s laudatory documentary on Ford arrived the same year surely helped.) The supporting actress category was won by Cloris Leachman, then appearing on television screens every week as Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both performances are restrained and finely wrought, precise and perfectly realized expressions of the melancholy in the film’s aching heart. It’s reasonable to say that Johnson never did work quite as emotionally delicate across his preceding films, most of them fairly rote cowboy pictures, and that Leachman, for all her considerable and justly lauded gifts as a comedic actress wouldn’t again approach the dramatic resonance she finds here. Bogdanovich found something in them that other directors couldn’t quite see.
Two years later, another Bogdanovich-directed performance took Oscar gold, though the young actress in question reportedly told her co-star father than she thought it was bronze plating the statuette. In that instance, Bogdanovich’s guidance — and patience — was absolutely instrumental.
Tatum O’Neal was nine years old when she donned the raggedy, Depression-era clothes of Addie Loggins, a recently orphaned girl who becomes traveling companion and impromptu partner to a small-time conman who might be her father (played by O’Neal’s real-life pop, Ryan O’Neal). Alvin Sargent’s screenplay for Paper Moon puts a decent amount of snappy banter into Addie’s mouth, and her cunning largely drives the plot. It’s a lot to put on a neophyte actor who hasn’t yet logged a decade of life. The safe approach for a director would be structuring the film so the performance can be stitched together from a multitude of takes, finding all the fleeting moments that can be connected to make — or replicate — a whole performance. Bogdanovich, again committed to the authenticity of a person over the expert use of craft, wanted to heighten the impression that every bit of what was on screen came from O’Neal. As much as possible, he favored long takes without a cut that showed O’Neal’s efforts across an entire scene, keeping up with the rat-a-tat dialogue and holding character.
Bogdanovich might have had an easier time in the editing room. To get the film he wanted —the performance he wanted, really — often required dozens upon dozens of takes. When he finally got what was needed, though, the result was pretty magical. O’Neal is sharp and magnetic throughout Paper Moon, hitting Addie’s toughness, emotional need, and childlike curiosity at different moments and holding them together in a single, definable person. If it’s a performance that’s coaxed into being by the director more than invented by the actor, well, it’s hardly the only one of those in the annals of cinema.
O’Neal is in nearly every minute of Paper Moon, but she was a kid, so she was relegated to the supporting category. Like Johnson and Leachman, she beat a co-star (Madeline Kahn, playing a foxy schemer who briefly joins the traveling escapades before being brought down by Addie). Unlike those predecessors, O’Neal became the youngest competitive Oscar winner ever, a record that holds to this day.
With two of his first four feature films, Bogdanovich directed six actors to Oscar nominations and three to victory. The golden touch stopped there. Bogdanovich followed Paper Moon with a string of bombs and became, fairly or not, the exemplar of promising young filmmakers undone by their own hubris. His other films barely made an impression at the Academy Awards (to be fair, Cher should have gotten a nomination Bogdanovich’s 1985 film, Mask). Those three performers and performances that did land Oscars? Even more so than a lot of directors, Bogdanovich deserves a significant amount of credit for guiding the work to wins.